Reviewed by Amy Hughes
As a casual listener or a dedicated Harryhead, this loving tribute to the man (and the band) known the world over as Nilsson is as seriously put together as one could hope for.
Harry & Me (This Day In Music Books, 2021) brings us into the atmosphere that inhabits any great tribute from a fan perspective: well-designed with attention to detail, numerous interviews, thoughtful analysis and quotes from the subject himself. And for a Nilsson aficionado, I can’t emphasize enough this is a must-add to your collection.
While this isn’t a straight up biography, what it does fulfill is the outpouring of positive vibes (truly no other phrase fits) that are brought forward about Nilsson. What is especially eye-opening is the diversity in fans, colleagues and contributors’ passages: from those that played with him, helped his career musically, cared about his work and his family and ultimately after his passing, continue to spread the word and not let his legacy stall at his death.
After John Lennon and Paul McCartney gave an official endorsement in 1968, Nilsson’s profile rose stratospherically. While making notices for his songwriting (The Monkees ‘Cuddly Toy’ and Three Dog Night’s ‘One’), his voice became his calling card, rapturously recalled by dozens of fans in these pages. Chief among the highlights was his interpretation of ‘Without You,’ written by Badfinger’s Pete Ham and Tom Evans. Not one single person in this book comes away not untouched by Nilsson’s emotive, soaring delivery and the tragic sad story associated with it’s writers.
Nilsson also gained notice with his cover of Fred Neil’s ‘Everybody’s Talkin’ from ‘Midnight Cowboy.’ While these songs could have cemented his reputation early on, Nilsson continued to deliver (and as Roberts and Watson gathered for the book) either in collaboration (with Randy Newman) or the revelation on how rock legends Aerosmith got their name.
An informative and recurring feature is Watson and contributor Mark Richardson’s amusing and helpful analysis of Nilsson releases: from ‘Nilsson – Early Years’ to ‘Losst and Founnd,’ both bring their personal memories and picks for tracks… measured in pints of beer!
Another feature is ‘Harry On’ sprinkled throughout in Nilsson’s own words from various interviews given over his career. One can see his laidback, self-deprecating humor, his utter lack of celebrity-ism even when fans who in their own words describe meeting Nilsson at any given time in his life: his home, the recording studio and at fan gatherings. These sorts of insights serve as a reinforcement that despite the sound bite culture of today, we should appreciate Nilsson and soak in at length the down-to-earth person he was.
More than a few fans and colleagues recall his tireless perfection in production and his notorious aversion to live performances. Most of these interviews focus on the ‘what ifs’ had Nilsson thought it worth his while and many fans were overjoyed if they happened to see him in at an informal function or private party where he felt comfortable singing and playing the piano for a small audience.
As far as the ‘discovery’ of Nilsson, the stories that are woven in ‘Harry & Me’ are almost nearly the same: fans and industry insiders speaking in the book found Nilsson on their own and genuinely felt (and continue to feel) an almost cosmic connection. Many were also able to come upon his work through older siblings, chance meetings in record stores with like-minded listeners, pen pals or simply from buying anything and everything they could find. Whether it was ‘The Point!’ (beautifully narrated by Nilsson), ‘Nilsson Schmilsson’ (an undeniable classic) or ‘A Little Touch of Schmilsson In The Night,’ he affected many demographics and geographics throughout his career.
One could argue though that his career into the mainstream sense suffered greatly with his well-known alcohol consumption. Too many stories abound with the negativity surrounding his drunken escapades and the nadir that became ‘Pussy Cats.’ While there was some good that came from his friendship with Lennon, the direction of his life and music changed after this release. There were several outstanding career moments (stage adaptations of ‘The Point!,’ the ‘Popeye’ movie soundtrack and attendance at fan fests), as Lennon’s death re-charged him as an anti-gun advocate.
Nilsson continued off and on with releases that Roberts and Watson duly note while also bringing in the downturn in his life after a trusted advisor embezzled his production company funds. Many close friends and fans attempted to help him during this part of his life and it’s noted with great sadness that this may have been the long goodbye that Nilsson never fully acknowledged to the public.
As the book winds down and touches with great emotion on his death in 1994, the collective of fans began a push to get Nilsson inducted in the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall Of Fame. While this movement has been an ongoing, heartfelt love letter, it has yet to happen and it’s worth noting that many of his musician friends and collaborators keep the message alive and ongoing.
The overall arc of Nilsson’s contribution to pop music is never without question. ‘Harry & Me’ has brought together the people who truly serve the greater purpose. Someone who had much to deliver on behalf of Nilsson was his son Zak. With a poignancy that can only be seen from the date of publication, this book is dedicated by Roberts to him after his passing from cancer in March of 2021.
In the hopes that ‘Harry & Me’ generates continued beloved insight into Nilsson – with it’s dozens of little-seen images, thought-provoking interviews with supporters and volumes of Nilsson narrative…
I give this book 5 out of 4 beetles (as Nilsson is unofficially a ‘Fifth Beatle!’)